Five Years Of The Bandcamp Subscription!

This last weekend, I went to a gig by Richard Lomax AKA Granfalloon – a singer from Manchester. He was explaining where the band name Granfalloon came from – its origins being in Kurt Vonnegut’s book Cat’s Cradle. A Granfalloon represents a false or absurd sense of connection felt between a group of people who aren’t really connected in any meaningful way. And its meaningful opposite is a Karass – as Wikipedia puts it, ‘a group of people linked in a cosmically significant manner, even when superficial links are not evident.’

Which obviously got me thinking about the strange and wonderful group of people that make up my subscriber community on Bandcamp, having just reached the fifth anniversary of the subscription’s inception!

The people who subscribe to me represent the last 20 years of my solo career in breadth and depth, with some old friends and very long time listeners in there alongside people who’ve found my music more recently,  and even a few who I imagine are there because they think the venture is worthwhile even without having a particularly deep connection to the music… Those ‘superficial’ links are absent purely because of the diversity of their backgrounds and ways of relating to this central community – they’re from all over the world, of a pretty huge age range, and I’d be hard pushed to pigeonhole the interests of the typical Steve Lawson subscriber, beyond there being a statistically significant number of bass players present in the sample 🙂

We are a Karass, gathered around a bunch of music and a way of making it available that cuts across so many of the assumptions about how and why recorded music is supposed to exist, it’s relationship with live concerts, the economics around how musicians are supposed to leverage some value from their work, and the balance of significance given to the actual recordings vs the conversations, discussions, questions and contextual ramblings that frame their existence.

The exchange is, from where I’m sat, very much two-way in so many ways other than the economic sustainability that is so evident at the heart of it. Releasing live recordings throughout the year gives room for the development of my music-making ideas and focus to be influenced by the discussions and responses that happen in between those gigs – earlier this year I released three live albums in the space of a month or so, giving the subscribers who wanted to dig into it the space to consider how my set of tools and ideas manifests itself differently across multiple nights of what in any other context might have been part of a tour, but which almost none of my audience would ever be able to attend across multiple nights.

The kind of exalted status any artist needs to have in order to inspire their listeners – fans – to turn up to multiple nights on the same tour is neither a desirable state to be in nor a practical one if I want to continue to play in small-scale, intimate, community spaces in the way that I do. Recognising that the upper ceiling on my audience size for doing things the way I really want to is actually pretty small has been a huge relief in terms of letting go of many of the expectations of scale that go with having any kind of music career in the age of streaming.

How do I get to make loads of music, release it, and find a community that are willing to engage with it, be present IN it and shape it by giving me permission to keep experimenting (as opposed to withholding their economic support from what I do until I do a farewell or greatest hits tour)? Those were the big questions I set out to try and explore when I launched my Bandcamp subscription on Oct 23rd 2014. FIVE years ago this week.

I’m so, so grateful to everyone who has subscribed over the years – whether or not you’ve since unsubscribed. This was never meant to be a social engineering project, aimed at trapping/tricking people into remaining subscribed beyond the point where it’s useful or meaningful for them to be so. The first year’s offering is by far the biggest if you bring normal industry metrics to bear on things, because you get some crazy number of albums from across the last 20 years immediately. And they’re yours to keep, not contingent on you remaining subscribed. Unlike so many other platforms, Bandcamp doesn’t do access rental. The music is yours to keep.

But that initial offering is the raw material needed to get caught up with Where We Are Now. My own focus is not ‘how can I leverage value from my back catalog?’ – this isn’t my retirement fund in any way, shape or form – my focus is forward-looking, and the back catalog is all context for where we are. I’m deeply proud of all of it, and am happy for people to listen to it in a focused way, to dump it all in a folder and listen across the two decades represented on shuffle, to have favourites and to have projects that don’t work for them…

The most amazing thing for me about the subscription, other than the friendships and conversation perhaps, is that I no longer need to think about the direct marketable ‘value’ of any one album. I don’t prepare music for release thinking ‘will people buy this?’ My thought process is episodic – I make music that advances the story, I release music that builds on where we’ve come from and where we’re heading. I have favourite episodes, for sure, and certainly the guest stars are an absolute joy for me, but it’s the totality of it that feels like ‘the work’ – that 20 year story arc that shows no sign of stopping or slowing.

Just under a year after I launched the subscription I was inspired by a recording session with Divinity Roxx to add a MIDI controller to my set up and to start playing drums and keyboards and later to incorporate found sound and field recordings into my music. Even at that stage, the sense of cushioning that the subscription gave me from the raw economic impact of wrong-footing my audience gave me the creative latitude to try things out, to in one sense trash the ‘solo bass steve’ brand as an accurate descriptor of what I did as a music maker, but to significantly broaden the sonic scope of my work. The ‘all live, no edits’ rule is still in place – not because it’s an ethically superior state for music (that’s a wholly absurd notion) but because that particular constraint focusses my thoughts around a kind of music making that results in the gradual and constant evolution of my language, my ability to construct compelling and meaningful stories in sound, and to perform in a way that allows for every gig to be at the same high standard as the recordings, but also to then be released as a unique event for those who couldn’t be there.

There is in music scholarship a large amount of energy and effort given over to people’s perceptions of the relative merits of the experience of live vs recorded music – the idea that a live recording has no value because it doesn’t capture the atmosphere and the experience, or the idea that a live gig can never scale the heights of the production of a well conceived recording. That, to me, is an entirely false dichotomy that misses the interrelatedness of liveness and the documentary process. A record is different from a gig, in the same way that a meal is different from going to the park. They serve different needs, and the availability of the experience means that they have wholly different levels of exclusivity in terms of who may experience them.

A gig is geographically and temporally bound to the where and when of its happening. A recording is wedded to the technology required for its experiencing and the emphasis that tech brings to the sound as envisaged by the person recording, mixing and mastering it. A live recording isn’t comparable as an experience to a gig because one is repeatable and relocatable and the other is not. But the possibility of RE-hearing an improvised show you were at is a magical one. The option to experience and compare multiple nights across a fixed time period, to compare, to listen again, to even transcribe and learn the music if you’re a performer – to do that without the frankly ridiculous limitations to the time required to manufacture product, distribute it, market it, promote it and then focus ones energies on drawing attention to it – that is an amazing, breathless liberty.

There’s no such thing as ‘creativity free from influence or constraint’ – the mythology of the entire liberated auteur magicking music from the ether is a marketing construct like any other, elevating the creative path to that of the alchemist. Instead, if we’re aware of them, we can deliberately curate our influences and shape our context to best create the affordance for the kind of creative exploration that feels most meaningful to as at any one time.

My own path requires me to stay as unburdened by my own history as possible. ‘Solo bass’ carries its own set of expectations and distractions that I try to remain conscious of. I’d hate to have a hit record that brought with it an audience offering the promise of economic enrichment for my willingness to tread that same ground over and over. It’s not that songs are bad, or that touring with a setlist is some lesser creative path. That’d be both offensive and wholly disingenuous to try and elevate small scale improvised performance to some loftier creative plain.. But it is MY path, it’s where my curiosity leads, and it’s the area within which I can best explore how to soundtrack the world in all its beauty and desolateness.

And the Bandcamp subscription is UTTERLY vital to not only me being able to do that, but to helping define that emerging sense of it even being a possibility. It’s a very different way of thinking about the purpose and value of performing and recording, of developing my creativity and presenting it to people for their enjoyment, edification and often bemusement 😉

So thank you. Thank you subscribers, thank you Bandcamp, and well done if you’ve read this far. Send me an email and I’ll send you a download code for my latest album as a reward for actually reaching the end of this 😉

Subscribe now at stevelawson.bandcamp.com/subscribe

The Audience As Producer

[preamble – this is an emerging line of thought for my PhD, so I wrote this down as is today by way of getting the thoughts out… make of it what you will… It’s a pretty long read… 🙂 ]

The traditional economic arrangement within the music industries throughout the pre-digital age of mechanical reproductionwas for record labels to pay (as little as possible) for the rights to record music onto a physical format, promote the music via radio, TV and magazines, and then sell that product via distribution to shops where the public bought it. The role of the artist was as both originator of the music (though the idea of artist-composer was, in pop music, a relatively late development) and the object of the marketing/promotion, where a version of the artist was presented to the public, often as a heroic figure, a figure of aspiration or of sexual desire, and the music associated with that image.

The role of record producer was to mediate between the creative work of writing and performing songs (after an A&R person had helped connect the artist to the desired song) and the demands and constraints of the market, as well as the immovable requirements of the format – a vinyl record, be it a 78, 7” single or 12” LP, could only hold a specific length of music, and so studio production was as much as anything else an exercise in enforced brevity, particularly for makers of music that relied on improvisation. Jazz performers at the end of the 50s and into the 1960s were known for stretching out live, and playing single tunes that would extend beyond the constraints of one side of a 12” LP (first introduced in 1948)

CD extended that limit to 74 minutes, and with the advent of digital-only releases, the limitations on durational audio works became looser and related to file size upload limits for particular platforms (Bandcamp, for example, only allows up to 600Mb files, which for a 16bit 44.1Khz FLAC file is approx two hours in length) or the endurance of the audience… Which neatly brings us to the audience’s role in production. Stuart Hall in his seminal work on mass media reception and semiotics Encoding And Decoding In The Television Discourse, outlines the concept of the audience reception of a production being part of the production cycle, in that TV as a commercial format (or one with a public service broadcast remit like the BBC) is deeply influenced in its production decisions by the ways in which an audience has received similar work, by broader trends in TV viewing, and by projections based on other social and cultural observations about changes in behaviour.

In music, this historically led to structural orthodoxies in pop music, especially in songs that were designed as ‘singles’ and therefor focused on acquiring an audience through radio and TV exposure. From the length of the song to a set of assumptions about what the introduction should be, or when the chorus should arrive – as well as all the more recent discussions around the loudness war – we have a varying set of arrangement and production constraints that have influenced music makers for the best part of a century. This is a trend that continues into the digital age, with changes in the model of production for music works targeted specifically at the economic and attention-based affordances of streaming services.

So, what happens when you remove yourself from some of those constraints? A shift in constraints happened to some degree with the emergence of the LP as THE dominant format rather than the single – bands and artists started to produce works whose constraint was the length of music that would comfortably fit on one side of a record, or multiples of that (progressive rock albums such as Yes’ Tales From Topographic Oceans revelled in the perceived opulence of recording a four track suite over a double album, each song lasting an entire side – as a young prog fan in the 80s, this was the pinnacle of the anti-commercial gesturing of progressive rock’s positioning as the antithesis of ‘pop’ music (despite it reaching number one in the UK album charts).) This coincided with a bunch of other changes in radio (in the UK, John Peel brought to BBC Radio 1 a wholly unconventional approach to what was considered good radio programming), in studio techniques (multitrack recording and more extensive editing made it possible for artists to do far more complex work by layering themselves multiple times, rather than just playing with a more-or-less live band set-up for the full 20+ minutes) and in listening patterns (Yamaha introduced ‘hifi’ speakers in the late 60s and the trend grew through the 70s for more pristine listening equipment in homes, before the cassette revolution changed listening again into the 80s)

The mechanisms for shifting the focus (in relation to commercial purpose, target audience or cultural context) of creating musical artefacts, whether physical or digital, are now broader than at any time in history. As much as we’re being told that the old industry is ‘dying’ there are still major record labels, still a machinery in place for the production and marketing of music and its makers in an evolved but recognisable version of the model built in the 50s and 60s. There are still bands of mostly older white men who define themselves as other by following the production conventions of those 70s progressive rock experimentations (such an interesting development for ‘progressive’ to be a term of comfort for those seeking a nostalgic experience within known and safe idiomatic parameters…) and there are still ‘audiophile’ listeners who consider the extreme fidelity of a recording as a value factor in whether something is worth listening to (and buying).

But there has also been an explosion in the development of community-based music production possibilities. Again, these are the extensions of existing models of production – independent record production has existed for as long as record production has been a thing, with artists making their own product to sell, and local labels forming around scenes as an entrepreneurial character saw an opportunity to make some money or at least build a sustainable community around local music making. With the advent of cassette, entire global networks of tape traders built social and creative capital for artists with no resources for distribution, particularly in the worlds of the ‘jam band’ scene in the US (where completists traded live tapes) and in the nascent 80s metal scene, where ‘zines played an utterly pivotal role in getting the word out about geographically localised scenes in places such as Brazil, Scandinavia, Florida and The Bay Area.

The primary novel affordances brought to these practices in the digital age are the ability to replicate the recordings with no loss of fidelity and at zero marginal cost (tape trading resulted in perpetual degradation of the original recording, and relied on an injection of capital at every stage as tapes were purchased and sent through the mail with photocopied artwork and information), and the enhanced capacity for the artists to be the originators of these recordings, and thus leverage both financial and social capital from those works, whether they are studio or live recordings. The tools for recording have become orders of magnitude cheaper in relation to equivalent production quality over the last 30 years, with the capability to produce works that are aesthetically indistinguishable from expensive commercial recording studio productions at ‘bedroom’ level.

One of the most interesting affordances this creates is for the mediation process between artist and audience to become diminished to the point where it is largely experientially invisible as ‘commercial exploitation infrastructure’, beyond the activities it makes possible. External mediating infrastructure is still required by means of web hosting for the recordings/media, communications technology that exact a price in either money (a paid email list host for example) or the extraction of data from our transactions and our (artist + audience) exposure to advertising (eg Facebook, Twitter), the use of those same advertising tools and their algorithmic infrastructure to tell the story of our art and reach new audiences that solely relying on word of mouth won’t reach. Add to that the need for physical devices – computers and mobile devices on which to listen to the recordings and to communicate with audiences – and for communication between audience members.

That the technological means for receiving the music are already in place for many of our audience members removes one barrier to their engagement with the music and the community around it, but does create a situation in which the ways that attention is transacted around music are now competing directly with all the other attention-acquiring activities that those same devices are capable of, from social media activity (reading/posting/media interaction), video watching, gaming, gambling, private conversation, media production and the management of many areas of our personal lives such a finances and health. That my CD player was never needed to be repurposed as a conversation tool or to check my bank balance made it a far more stable environment for the experiencing of music, once I had oriented myself to it with the intention of committing time to listening to music. I also in that instance was only able to choose from the music I owned, or had borrowed and was currently in my possession, rather than it being juxtaposed within the same listening device with the potential to seek out an unimaginably huge amount of music from across the entire history of recorded audio.

So what does all this mean for my initial question about the audience as producer? Well, those roles associated with a record producer – the person with the technical skills (or who would hire a person with those skills) and who connects the project to the commercial context by making aesthetic suggestions regarding the degree to which the work would ‘fit’ – are heavily modified by an environment in which the audience

  • are in direct contact with the artist,
  • are potentially party to the process of making the recordings,
  • are present at the gigs where live recordings are made, and
  • are – in the case of subscription models for pre-paying for the work – already the ‘funders’ of the work, creating an economic cushion for the time needed to work on the music.

So many of the various roles that a record producer might have exclusively occupied in the age when music making and music discovery/sales were connected by the machinery of a label are now possible to be distributed between artist and audience, making it a distinct consideration that the artist might conspicuously include the audience in the process of making the work.

This invitation to be a part of the work might be as forward as allowing them to democratically choose the songs – the first artist I saw experiment with this was American bassist Seth Horan, who ran a pre-pay option for his album Clang And Chime, released eventually in 2009, and uploaded a large number of demo recordings of songs inviting the project’s backers, referring to them explicitly as producers, to choose the ones that went on the album – and thanks to my habit of archiving everything, I’ve just found one of his emails to his mailing list about it, from December 2008

“Since this past July, I’ve written 20 songs, recorded the first-draft versions, and sent them to a group of mailing list members who invested in this new album; they became my Producers, and have been providing valuable feedback in determining which songs are going to make it on to the album, and how to make those songs that DO make it as good as they can be. It has been awesome, awful, intense, funny, and candid, and the result is that I have been held to some surprisingly exacting standards.”

Alternatively, the audience inclusion may be a more general invitation to offer comment/support/conversation around the making of work, or organising meet-ups for listeners to connect with the artists, and through that more flattened hierarchical relationship, invite the audience who might consider themselves friends to comment on the work and express preference for particular activities.

The history of record production is littered with legendary stories of artists making work that labels hated, and these were very often self-produced (though historically it seems more rare for an artist to self-engineer the projects, so some level of quality control in the process was professionally mediated external to the band themselves), the tension existing over the perceived commercial value of those records (apparently Talk Talk went so far as to ban EMI representatives from the studio while spending a year – and an untold amount of money – recording Spirit Of Eden – a record the label hated, but which has become one of the most celebrated and influential records in of the last 40 years…). And tensions can still arise between artists and audience-producers, as any number of missed deadlines for crowdfunded projects via Pledge Music or Kickstarter will demonstrate.

In my case, the audience as producer mechanism is one that involves influence going both ways – I’m hugely grateful for the patronage, friendship, commentary, suggestions and conversation with my Bandcamp subscribers – and I quite often discover new music through that that influences my music-making – and in return, I invite them into a much more involved conversation about the value of a decommoditised process for releasing recordings, framing it more as an episodic, documentary project with each “album” building into a bigger story, rather than being an atomised product with a budget and a commercial placement. The amount paid by subscribers doesn’t change based on the amount I make, so there are times when I have to consider the real possibility of them feeling overwhelmed by the volume of music I might release at any one time if I happen to be in a really productive stage, and then their feedback becomes a significant factor in how and when I decide what to release (along with my own interpretation of the aggregate listener stats I get from Bandcamp, where I can see which albums have been most downloaded and most listened to in the app across a given time period, so can make some deductions about the likelihood that engagement has tailed off when I’ve put out too much music at one time).

So the audience mitigate volume of work, they feed into the direction I might pursue in that I’m consciously responsive (as well as occasionally being conspicuously antagonistic) to their preferences as expressed in the subscriber discussion area, but also more apt to provide additional narrative/contextual support for ideas that I feel the creative desire to pursue but for which there appears to be less existing enthusiasm! They also show up at gigs, and we get to talk about things before and after the show. There are even some who on occasion send me (unsolicited!) more money because they feel that the subscription cost doesn’t reflect the degree of value they get from the work. That’s a pretty extraordinary position to be in.

As an artist, I feel both a commitment to follow my ‘muse’ and a need to acknowledge that the idea of ‘creative freedom’ is mostly a bogus myth and the big concern is what particular set of directives we hook our wagon up to, be they commercial, cultural, historical, community-based, academic…

There are loads of ways we can interpret the quality and direction of our own musical output, but making myself to some degree accountable and available to the people who are willing to put money and attention behind music – as well as performing the emotional labour of being conspicuously supportive and attentive to the production of that work – including paying an annual subscription fee for work that doesn’t yet exist, feels like a far more meaningful expression of those things than I would perhaps find with a label and the whims of someone’s sense of my music’s commercial value…? The label/artist/audience divide is nowhere near as clear-cut in the age when performing those roles requires so much less access to manufacturing equipment or companies, far fewer logistical considerations revolving around the distribution of plastics to far flung corners of the world, and many labels actually function as a structured extension of this idea of audience as producer, many originating with people who were frustrated that the musicians who made the music they love were unable to carry on doing it within a system perceived as venal and anti-art. That positioning for a label, that of patronage and an art-first aesthetic has significant cross over experientially with the audience as producer notion, but ultimately relies way more heavily on the opinions of a much smaller number of people – often one person – than the shifting and evolving community that may afford an artist a level of perceived economic headroom to experiment further, inviting the existing audience on that journey, and perhaps marketing the subscription to people assumed to be more in tune with the changes in direction… For me as an artist whose stylistic frame is a dialectical exchange between having a very highly developed style and vocabulary but a commitment to exploring how it can be expressed across a wide range of idiomatic contexts, the affordances of the audience as producer notion are rich and rewarding. I’ve yet to hit on the limits of it creatively, in that I’ve never recorded something that I loved but felt was unlikely to be received well by my subscriber base… I’ll update this post should that ever happen 🙂

Creative Freedom And Your Audience

[Warning: LONG read] I’ve just got back from a properly brilliant academic conference exploring Audience Research In The Arts – Audience research crosses a whole ton of disciplines and sub-disciplines, from sociology and anthropology to musicology and the science of memory. It was so invigorating to be around a massive group of people much smarter than me all trying to understand and illuminate different research angles on Audiences – who they are, what they do, how to reach them, the spaces they occupy and what those spaces mean, how they influence artists, and what kind of things they like, dislike and respond to… A dizzying array of magical goodness. If you want to see exactly what was on, here’s the conference program.

The main thing I brought away was a huge pile of methodological considerations that I now need to research and write up in the hope of getting back on track with my PhD, but there are a couple of things I want to think out loud about here. The first of them is this idea of creative freedom.

There was a really interesting paper given about contemporary composers and their variable perception of who their audience was and whether or not the only opinion that mattered was actually that of their peers. The starting point for it was this essay by Milton Babbitt that suggests ‘normal’ listeners aren’t sufficiently clever to understand the arcane workings of contemporary classical composition and that’s OK. The research project in question found a spread of opinion amongst the composers in its research data, but the bit that most intrigued me was the prevalence of uncritical takes on the concept of ‘creative freedom’ as an active state explicitly free from audience consideration. Given the many other research projects being presented that looked at imagined audiences, ad hoc audiences, that explored some of Bourdieu’s theories on how culture operates as an audience context for work created within that culture, and the 50 year history of reception studies acknowledging that even in broadcast media, the audience reception of a piece is an aspect of its production (creating a feedback loop), the uncritical lean towards the concept of artistic freedom seems particularly odd.

All the more so because it is utterly central to what I do to consider my audience and their relationship with the work, with the context within which the work is produced, even seeing our community of makers and listeners as ‘the work’. I have pretty much no interest in ‘purity’ as an artistic aim, and even authenticity I interpret in an Erving Goffmann sense, to be about consistency of messaging and intent across different “presentations of self” rather than as relating to some fixed notion of creative agency.

Because, of course, I have by the standards of contemporary music making, a ridiculous amount of creative autonomy – I have no label, no manager, no band, no commissioner, no funding body, no institution… I’ve built a set of tools and skills over the last 30 or so years explicitly designed to get to the point where I have the absolute minimum marginal cost for music making. I get to do whatever it is that I feel is interesting and worthwhile in my creative life. So when I started on the path to funding that journey through a subscription, it was with the explicit intention of becoming MORE accountable and visible to my audience rather than more independent of them. There is now a community of people numbering only a few hundred who are collectively responsible for the financial viability of my current work mode, but who are also the social context for me understanding what it is that I’m up to. Because, as anyone who has spent any time attempting to uncritically discuss intention with musicians will know, musicians with any degree of success are mostly terrible at articulating the honest/real/material/social context for how and why they do what they do. I have so many dear friends whose explanation of their process, aims, career and relationship with the culture and economy that they operate in bears zero relationship to anything you could actually measure.

As an avid reader of the music press from the age of about 11 – starting with Smash Hits and Number One, and moving through Kerrang and Metal Hammer, then onto the NME, Melody Maker and Sounds, and eventually to glossies like Q and Vox and Word before finally ending up with online magazines and blogs, I’ve always been fascinated by the importance of wilfully delusional thinking in the self-mythologising of musicians (and of course, the enabling role that the press have played in rewarding the sensational, rarely if ever offering any kind of meaningful behavioural critique of rock excess, and building an economic model for themselves that relies on the amoral documentary work of celebrating sociopaths as iconoclasts). Indeed, that self-mythology often exists to justify (to themselves and the reader) their abhorrent behaviour towards fans and peers, but it also serves a less dystopian purpose in creating a space in which their own mythology can feed into work that desires for itself an absence of doubt and an abundance of self-confidence. It is, after all, pretty much impossible to apologetically play an arena or stadium show (perhaps providing one explanation for the prevalence of cocaine use amongst creatives, as a counter to self-doubt in an environment that eviscerates the doubtful). Even the glorious self-effacing asides of performers as engaging as James Taylor or Paul Simon rely on the reality that here is an audience made of thousands of people willing to spend significant chunks of money to hear this incredible band of musicians. There’s almost nothing to be won or proved, just a glorious legacy to be confirmed.

So what happens when your musical journey requires an ongoing dialectic of instability, questioning and perpetual forward motion on one side and a community of support and informed care on the other? How does that marry with the quite specific economies of scale that define the relationship between music as a product that accrues nostalgic magnetism over time through repeat exposure and the larger performance contexts within which it resides? Can we move beyond those growth/scale metrics of success to see the audience as the community vessel within which the work exists? In the same way that U2 or Coldplay songs can sometimes sound ridiculous robbed of the sense of meaning that 80,000 people singing along can lend to even the most banal of sentiments, is it possible to create work that only makes sense within a community invested in being the embodied vessel for the work?

The level of listener engagement required to make sense of my recorded output is at odds with both a commercial recording-as-product-to-be-marketed understanding of what recordings are ‘for’ but also with the idea that I should have a group of expert peers who should tell me whether or not what I’m doing is significant within its elite field. I mean, I DO have those reactions – I have a commentary going back 20 years from experts in the field saying nice things about what I do and how I do it, and it would be wholly spurious to attempt to downplay the significance of press and radio coverage, or the endorsement of musicians like Victor Wooten or Michael Manring or Danny Thompson – but that’s not the ongoing purpose of the work. I rarely send any of those people or media entities links to my new work. They have the same invitation as anyone else at this point to engage with the subscription for what it is if the work, the story of the work and the broad idea of the work and its processes and contexts has meaning to them beyond a request for a quote that I can use to perhaps validate the experience of another listener who likes what they’ve heard but in the parlance of High Fidelity, isn’t quite sure if they should…

So, my subscribers are deeply and utterly integral to the work. Our relationship is in one very real way ‘the work’ in its entirety. The recordings are a documentary process, a soundtrack to a community who either listen to recordings from afar, or show up for a set of sparsely attended but intensely enjoyable and communal gigs. The recordings are, by sheer virtue of the increasingly unknowable volume of the back catalogue, an unfolding narrative comprised of episodes rather than being best experienced as a series of products designed to build on the commercial success of the previous one and relate to the changes in culture and media in an explicit way.

It’s closer – perhaps – to a steady state economic model for music making, in that there’s a very low bar for economic viability (the project is viable at this level with 230-ish subscribers, and would be entirely sustaining of my family’s economics at around 1000 annual subscribers), and that is both a hindrance to growth (in that the point of economic engagement – and access to the vast majority of the catalogue – is your first year’s subscription fee of £30) but also is (in Bourdieu’s formulation) a position taken in opposition to the prevailing quest for an ever expanding streaming listenership, where 250,000 people contributing fractions of a penny per listen each is the aim. There is an affordance within that model for a specific kind of creative-economic aspiration, and it’s not one that favours the kind of thought process, time scale, work/life balance or narrative context that interests me as a creative person.

Given that ‘creative freedom’ is a mostly nonsensical formulation acknowledging the complexity of influences that we’re all consciously and unconsciously subjected to every time we even think about music let alone engage with activities around making it and learning how to make it, I’m happy to hitch my music waggon to a community model that brings with it an affordance for a more reflective mode of music making, and a more episodic, decommoditised context for the releasing of recordings. It’s not like the subscription itself isn’t still a ‘product’ or commodity – it has a price and with that price comes a perception of the value of the offering in relation to that price, but what’s beyond that as an experience both live and recorded is what my PhD is all about… I’m currently about 18 months behind where I should be with written evidence of what I’m up to, but the thinking (and non-official writing) part is pretty well developed. Hopefully there’ll be a bunch more shows for y’all to come to in the very near future…

Anyway, the one open-ended question at the end of this is directed at current, former and perhaps even future subscribers – how does that lot map to your experience of being a subscriber? Is it just an economically meaningful way to get a bunch of music that you can’t get elsewhere, or is there more to it? Answers in the comments please 😉

New Podcast Interview at Music Tech Fest

Those of you who’ve been around here for a while will remember that I used to do interesting music economy stuff with a gang called New Music Strategies. NMS was originally Andrew Dubber‘s blog from the mid-noughts, on which he launched his utterly ground-breaking ‘Music In The Digital Age‘ eBook. Around 2009 he decided to use the NMS banner to launch what was loosely termed a consultancy, but was just a collective identity for a bunch of people doing smart thinking about the music economy. Our manifesto, such as it was, was ‘more music by more people in more places’, and aside from speaking at conferences and developing each other’s ideas, one of the most tangible NMS outputs was the NMS Podcast that Dubber and I had from 2011-13.

Fast forward to this year, Dubber is now Director of MTF, living in Sweden and post-academia. I’m knee-deep in PhD-land and swimming upstream in the new music economy via the exploration of subscription as a model for sustainability and improvisation in the age of streaming media…

So it was a really good time for a podcast catch-up, and as luck would have it, Dubber now hosts the rather brilliant weekly MTF Podcast. It’s properly recorded – our episode and many others were recorded at the 100th UnConvention in Salford this year – unlike our wine-pizza-ZoomH1-and-conversation approach back in the NMS days, and the result is probably the most succinct document of what I’m up to that has yet been produced (the ScottsBassLessons podcast from 2016 is also worth a listen)

So click here to listen to me on the MTF Podcast. And don’t forget to subscribe while you’re there – it’s a great listen every week.

I hope one day Dubber and I get to revive the podcast – he’s one of my best friends, and I doubt I’d be doing what I’m doing now if it wasn’t for his influence and encouragement back in the late 00s. We filled in for each other on speaking gigs and spent countless hours exploring what the digital age had to offer musicians, and the challenges it presents. In the final analysis, his influence on hundreds of thousands of musicians in the nascent social media era changed the way we do what we do. That he and I got to swap ideas and refine them while having an awful lot of fun is one of the most enjoyable things in my adult life 🙂

A Reflection on Improv, Audiences and Recording

My recorded output is divided sharply into live and “studio” recordings. The equipment and audio process are identical for them both but the presence of a live audience completely changes the experience. When I’m in the studio (such a professional sounding euphemism for “the corner of the bedroom”) my audience is me, my aesthetic decisions, my moment to moment assessment of what needs to happen to is made in relation to my own taste, in dialogue with my own history, with whatever I’ve been working on and the lingering shadows of whoever has been inspiring me of late.

steve lawson playing bass

But live, the audience are present on the music. I interpret their presence, I respond to who’s there, to the sounds and gestures that I’m aware of while playing, and to my projected imagining of what their experience is like. I play to them, and for them but also with them and I become them, projecting my own understanding of what my experience would be were I not the one with a bass in my hands…

Listening back to any recording is a fascinating exercise in time-shifting the audio record of that moment, live or studio, and re-experiencing it with its own extant nature as a factor instead of the sense of possibility that exists in the unfolding.

So recordings are a translation of that experience and its quite possible for something to “work” on the moment but not as a recording or vice versa to feel like a failure live and then blossom under scrutiny.



I’ve been listening to my latest solo album on the way to work this morning, which is without doubt my favourite thing I’ve ever recorded. It’s also the most “successful” thing I’ve released in many many years. I was trying to remember the experience of improvising it all and some of the performances are still vivid in my mind (aided by the video that exists on YouTube of the actual recordings 🙂 )



Anyway, here it is if you want to hear it – just remember that, first time through, you share the sense of becoming that I had as it emerged in the moment. Second time through, you’re experiencing something wholly new – improvised music that now exists in relation to the memory of itself.

What’s So Special About An Improvised Gig?

Things I adore about improvised music, pt 593:

This is a quote from a book I’m re-reading for my PhD, called Coughing And Clapping, all about audiences and music:

“The pop music gig is a unique and visceral event, which at its most resonant can be a consummate experience involving all the senses. There is a real feeling for the concert-goer of it being for one night only, in that place, at that time, and of being something that can never be replicated – despite the fact that the band will often be playing the same numbers with the same light show on subsequent nights of the tour.” [1]

It sums up beautifully my feelings about the sleight of hand of playing the same thing night after night and hoping that something magical happens and it connects. There are obviously some bands who allow the circumstances to alter the music to a greater or lesser degree – for some, the songs are basically jumping-off points for whatever comes next – but for most pop/rock bands, the majority of the performance is set in stone. Or if not stone, then at least stale bread. Or that weird green stuff that soaks up water that you put flowers in.

For an improv gig, no such assumptions can be made. And the audience’s presence completely alters the music. The music is not only FOR you, but in a very real way, BY you – you change it. Like Jedis at Christmas, we feel your presence. We respond to the room, the people in it, the conversations before the gig, to smiles and looks of consternation, to interruptions, to the decor, to traffic noise. The music is an amalgam of everything in that moment, and if you weren’t there it would be different. So you get to have that experience of something unique 4 REALZIES. It actually happens.

My next gig is in a couple of weeks in Birmingham, and it’s all improv. Andy, Phi and I will be collaborating with whoever shows up, with the venue (we LOVE the Tower Of Song – such a welcoming, warm place to play dangerous music 🙂 ) and we’ll promise you a night of wholly original music that will stay with you, and will be uniquely yours. No-one else will ever get to say that they saw it, unless they were there on that night. Make plans, bring friends, come be a part of the history that will be made, and that is made every time improvisors step onto the stage, swallow the voice that pops up that says ‘er, what happens if *this time* it all goes to shit??’ and instead create something magical. For you. And your ears.

[1] Kronenburg, R. 2014. Safe and Sound: Audience Experience in New Venues for Popular Music Performance. In: Burland, K. and Pitts, S. eds. Coughing and clapping: Investigating audience experience. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.

Thinking Out Loud – Improvisation, Complexity and Repeatability

Part 2 of me thinking out loud (I’m adding this opening paragraph 1300 words into this, so I know already that this contains some quite epic conjecture and points that desperately need backing up/refuting with actual research… which is great, as that’s kind of the point 🙂 )

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So, in defining what improvisation actually is, I want to get into an interrogation of the context within which whatever it is exists. I’m fascinated by the historical transformation in our perceptions of what ‘music’ even is, as highlighted in Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay ‘The Work Of Art In The Age Of Mechanical Reproduction’.

Mechanical reproduction made a few things possible that were never even imaginable before – a lot of the stuff that Benjamin gets into is about the cultural impact of dissemination – access outside of the sacred turf of the concert hall and the gallery, the loss of space as part of the curated experience of art. But perhaps even more important for music is the possibility of repetition without memory. And exact repetition at that. Reproduction not re-performance. No subtle changes, no advantaging to the skill of being about to do a thing the same over and over again, just the ability to do a thing really well and then let technology take over so that everyone can hear that one time you did the amazing thing.

So, let’s back up a little – what were the factors in repeatability and its counterpart ‘knowability’ – the properties of being able to be known – what were the mechanisms of recall, what were the methods of transmission that dictated how we perceived, shared, performed and experienced music?


Continue reading “Thinking Out Loud – Improvisation, Complexity and Repeatability”

Thinking out loud – Improvisation

So, as many of you know, I’ve started a PhD. I’m looking at Improvisation, specifically the audience experience of improvisation. And it’s ‘practice based’, so the real focus is the audience experience of my improvised music.

“Why not just look at improvised music, at playing it?” Good question, imaginary Internet questioner. I think the main motivations are that

  • this seems to be a massively under-explored area, and
  • I kind of know what I’m doing with improv – I could write it up and record a load of music, but I needed some other focus to help me dig deeper into it. Thinking more inwardly about what I do and why didn’t feel like a journey I needed to go on right now – at least, not any more than it’s already one that I’m on every waking hour of my life anyway…

So the audience experience, as it relates to my music, feels like a rich and worthwhile area of exploration for a number of reasons. Continue reading “Thinking out loud – Improvisation”